Needles Hotel

Thursday, July 11, 2013


I have just finished reading an amazing book, the epic Gilgamesh, this particular translation by Stephen Mitchell. Gilgamesh is one of the world's oldest myths. The Sumerian story dates to 2700 bce, and was written around 1300 bce. It was discovered in 1853, inscribed on eleven clay tablets in the ruins of Ninevah, after being lost for many centuries. The work was found in the newly discovered ancient library of the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal.

The tablets were not fully translated until the end of the 19th century. The book is over a thousand years older than both the Bible and the Iliad. The tale is written in the ancient language Akkadian. The writer is the scribe Sin-liqe-unninni, the first author in history to sign his work.

Gilgamesh is the story of a mighty king, two parts god and one part man. Gilgamesh was a real historical figure who ruled the land of Uruk, approximately present day Iraq. He was the fifth king of that land and was said to have reigned for 126 years. 

The gods grant him an intimate friend, Enkidu, himself a mighty warrior. They whore around and battle monsters, standard hero stuff.  The story terminates with the earliest known flood story and Gilgamesh coming to grips with his own human mortality after the loss of his beloved friend.

The ark story is very similar to Noah's, with animals aboard of every type and stripe. In fact we meet the sun god Shamash in this tale, very similar to the hebrew word for sun, shemesh שמש. All peoples and cultures appropriate from what has been left behind for them.

This is a very poignant and human book, amazing the wisdom that still resonates within, from across the wide centuries and millennia. I would like to share a few passages with you.

Book X p.188

Shidari said "Gilgamesh, where are you roaming?
You will never find the eternal life that you seek. When the gods created mankind, they also created death, and they held back eternal life for themselves alone.
Humans are born, they live, then they die, this is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life, spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days a delight, bathe and annoit yourself, wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean, let music and dancing fill your house, love the child who holds you by the hand, and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

There is a curse invoked by Enkidu that is equally potent and passionate. Shamhat acts as a sex worker for the goddess Ishtar.

Book VII p.146

After he had cursed him to his heart's content, he then cursed Shamhat, the priestess of Ishtar.

"Shamhat, I assign you an eternal fate,
I curse you with the ultimate curse, may it seize you instantly, as it leaves my mouth.
Never may you have a home and family, never caress a child of your own,
may your man prefer younger, prettier girls,
may he beat you as a housewife beats a rug,
may you never acquire bright alabaster,
or shining silver, the delight of men, may your roof keep leaking and no carpenter fix it, 
may wild dogs camp in your bedroom, may owls nest in your attic, may drunkards vomit all over you, may a tavern wall be your place of business, may you be dressed in torn robes and filthy underwear, may angry wives sue you, may thorns and briars make your feet bloody,
may young men jeer and the rabble mock you as you walk the streets. Shamhat may all this be your reward for seducing me in the wilderness when I was strong and innocent and free.

Book XI p. 181

King of Shuruppak, quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life. The ship must be square, so that its length equals its width. Build a roof over it, just as the great deep is covered by the earth. Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.

This is a very eloquent work and does not suffer in the least for its age in its sensitivity to the human condition. Not a lot has apparently changed in this world of ours. Very easy and quick read, if you like myth and epic, you might want to familiarize yourself with its bounty. 


Wilbur Norman said...

Yes, it is an excellent read - especially when read out loud as it wold have been recited. The writer John Gardiner (with John Maier(?)) also did a translation.

In February I bought a bronze pendant that is the face of Humbaba the Terrible, a giant reared by the sun god and appointed guardian of the Cedar Forest (Cedars of Lebanon). The killing of Humbaba by Enkidu, of course, seals Enkidu's fate.

I think, by the by, that it was a Mesopotamian clay tablet text of the Gilgamesh story that was one of the items recovered in the bust of the Greene's, owners of Hobby Lobby.

OK, just looked up the story:

"Hobby Lobby agreed to return the artifacts and pay a fine of US$3,000,000. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement returned 3,800 items seized from Hobby Lobby to Iraq in May 2018. In March 2020 the Hobby Lobby president agreed to return 11,500 items to Egypt and Iraq." -- Wikipedia

Unknown said...

Hi Robert
In working on a new history course -Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations- the rise of the Sumerian culture and the story of Gilgamesh was one of the many stories that come from this period. it was all new to me and it was a fascinating read and an eye opener about the persistence of these early stories and the roots of christianity. doug